By Christian Pelusi
Cole Swindell’s meteoric rise up the country music charts can be directly related to what got him noticed by some of the industry’s most popular performers: writing songs that connect with people. He started his stage career performing covers as a student at Georgia Southern University, his alma mater. Soon, it dawned on him that “I wanted people to be singing back my songs.”
Swindell wrote songs for three years, attracting the attention of some of Nashville’s biggest stars and writing hits for Craig Campbell, Thomas Rhett, Florida Georgia Line, Scotty McCreery and fellow Georgia Southern alum Luke Bryan.
But stardom came quickly to Swindell after independently releasing his single, “Chillin’ It,” in February 2014. The song opened the door to a record deal, his eponymous debut album and a gig as the opening act on Bryan’s 2014 That’s My Kind of Night Tour. In 2015, Swindell was named New Artist of the Year at the Academy of Country Music Awards.
As a writer, Swindell said every song he creates is special, but acknowledges that two songs in particular have added meaning.
“There’s nothing like ‘Ain’t Worth the Whiskey’ and ‘You Should Be Here,’” Swindell said while taking a break from his current tour. “Those are the two most impactful songs I’ve had in my career. I think that’s just because it’s real life and I think people really relate to that.
“I’m writing [‘You Should Be Here’] thinking of career moments for me – me singing on the [Grand Ole] Opry or me winning an award – but the thing about that is that’s not real life for some people. That’s just the fortunate life I get to live, but there are people with husbands and wives overseas that are missing weddings and husbands missing births of children and stuff because they’re over there or they’re just out serving our country. I feel lucky to get to do what I do.”
People often approach Swindell to thank him for writing “Ain’t Worth the Whiskey” and “You Should Be Here” – which he wrote in memory his late father – and to mention how the songs help them reminisce about a loved one.
“When a song like ‘You Should Be Here’ is sitting at the top of charts for three weeks, knowing how many people [are affected by it]… I’m thankful for their stories because I was trying to release a song that would help others,” he said. “In this case, it’s helped me just as much or more than it’s helped anybody else, because just knowing that I’m not alone and feeling like that. Whether you’ve lost somebody or missing somebody, we all have moments where that one person, if they were there, it’d make it just a little bit sweeter.”
The universal themes of love and loss in “You Should Be Here” and how the song resonated with the military community led Swindell and the USO to team up and raise funds for service members and military families. As Swindell prepares to embark on his first USO tour to perform for deployed service members, he has pledged to donate $1 to the USO for every “You Should Be Here” album gifted to an active-duty service member from now until May 31 that is purchased at coleswindell.com.
“I think that’s what started the whole USO [album gifting of free downloads] with me is because of ‘You Should Be Here.’ I wrote that about losing my father, but I didn’t write it just for that. I wrote it so everybody could relate to it. I hope it’s about them just missing somebody and not losing somebody. I think military families know better than any of us.
“To be able to sing something that’s powerful and touches people, that’s the reason I moved to Nashville, that’s the reason I fell in love with country music. It’s not all about the fun times. This is real-life stuff and that’s why I love country music and why I love supporting our troops.”
Another Swindell hit, “Ain’t Worth the Whiskey,” has also developed special meaning for service members, veterans and military families. And a now-famous line that unites Swindell, the audience and those loved ones not present almost did not make it into the song.
“We’d been raising the glass to a long lost buddy in the whole song so I thought, ‘What if we raise it to our buddies who are out there fighting that haven’t made it home yet?’” he said. “We ended up putting it in there. The power of music. It’s pretty crazy. … Whether it’s one line or one whole song about something, people appreciate that. I’m honored to recognize that line.”
The power of music he mentioned and the emotion that comes from performing those songs is felt by Swindell, too.
“Just seeing people at my meet-and-greets and meeting military families helps me be able to sing that part proudly on stage every night and being the coolest moment of the show,” he said. “Not because I’m getting to sing that but it’s the fans, all of us get to feel this way. Just get a big group of people singing along, it’s putting chills on my arms right now thinking about it.”
Swindell is having a hard time imagining what it will be like to sing along with hundreds of deployed service members on his first USO tour. In talking with fellow artists who have performed for the military, he said they almost didn’t want to give away the magnitude of what it’s like.
“All I’ve ever heard is ‘You gotta do it, you gotta do it,’” he said. “To me, that says enough, I think. I think that’s just because there’s no way of describing in a short amount of time what it’s like to do that.
“I don’t think you can put the tears in your eyes and chill bumps, you can put that into words. … But when I get back, if you can put all of it into words, I’m gonna try.”
And if anyone can do that, and turn it into a hit song, it’s Cole Swindell.
You can send a message of support and thanks directly to service members via the USO’s Campaign to Connect. Your messages will appear on screens at USO locations around the world.